A Last Serenade for Billy Bonney

Written by Mark Warren
Review by Beth Kanell

Before every novel or film about Billy the Kid, a decision of good or evil, hero or villain, must be settled. For Western historian and wilderness teacher Mark Warren, a lens of love colors the complicated tale of the deadly outlaw from a well of compassion and tenderness. Diverging dramatically from the usual boy-meets-girl romantic salvation approach, Warren offers us instead a Santa Fe journalist struggling to make his career through dramatic reporting on the celebrated and deadly outlaw. Reporter John Blessing locates “William H. Bonney” in jail, draws out his version of a life of drastic choices and scant resources, and, chapter by chapter, reveals his own “serenade” through lines that begin, “This country shows no mercy to a young boy on his own, With no one to light a candle in the window of a home.”

Though Blessing sees Billy the Kid as a child, then a teen, stumbling between starvation and violence in an effort to find his place, this narrator also becomes a witness to the outlaw’s persecution and inevitable death. Blessing persistently interviews Billy’s fellow outlaws and girlfriends, but also his grade-school teacher, and his political enemies—those who are grabbing far more than their share of the opened ranch lands, through wealth and corruption and, when called for, murder.

With this narrative, it’s impossible not to take Billy’s side. The book is compelling, strongly paced, and compassionate, a dramatic ode to a human symbol of the West. After the entertainment of the story ends, its best use can be as a starting line for exploring the forces in play in the new nation, among both rugged settlers and determined seekers of American wealth and power.